1 9 5 0 – 1 9 5 4 (USA)
As television was coming of age in the 1950s, it was important for the networks to produce shows that entertained as many people as possible so they could build a loyal audience.
The easiest way to do this was with variety shows – easily produced programmes presenting a variety of entertainment acts, offering a little something for everyone.
These shows often focused on comedy, but few did it as well as NBC’s Your Show of Shows. This influential classic introduced the world to the talents of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca and paved the way for future live comedy shows like Saturday Night Live.
Your Show of Shows was produced by Max Leibman, a veteran stage producer who adapted the format he used for theatrical revues in Florida and the Catskills to the television medium.
The show was originally part of the two-hour Saturday Night Review before the first thirty minutes (filmed in Chicago) were dropped in 1951.
The 90-minute live show used a celebrity guest host and also worked in elements of ballet, opera, and popular music, but its real focus was on the comedic talents of its gifted cast.
First and foremost was Sid Caesar, a rubber-faced comic with a chameleon-like talent to transform himself into many different versions of the ‘everyman’.
He was paired up with an able comic foil in Imogene Coca, a multitalented performer who had musical and ballet training in addition to her formidable acting and comedic skills.
The cast was rounded out with gifted comedians like Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. Morris usually portrayed a nebbish whose nerdy exterior hid a burning desire to prove himself, while the urbane Reiner usually portrayed fast-talking slicksters.
The two men joined Caesar and Coca in many skits, acting as a sort of four-person repertory company for any idea the show’s writers could dish out. Comedy fans will note that Reiner continued to appear in ground-breaking comedy programmes like The Dick Van Dyke Show and later became the director of films like Oh, God! (1977) and The Jerk (1979).
A typical episode of Your Show of Shows began with Caesar introducing the week’s guest host, then performing a skit with Coca. After that, the show blended comic skits with production numbers, usually including a parody of popular film of the day (From Here To Eternity, for example, was transformed into From Here To Obscurity).
This was usually followed by Caesar performing a pantomime and a lavish production-number finale featuring the whole cast. This busy schedule of elements was made all the more amazing by the fact that it was all performed live.
Many of the comedic skits featured recurring characters. Two of the most popular were George and Doris Hickenlooper, a hopelessly mismatched couple whose endless petty disputes perfectly captured the anxiety of newlyweds. Coca also played a Little Tramp-style character in homage to the legacy of Charlie Chaplin.
Caesar’s multiple characters included super-cool jazz performer Progress Hornsby, Italian film expert Giuseppe Marinara, and any number of professional experts in topics like archaeology and art history.
Your Show of Shows offered such an impressive array of entertainment and talent that it was simply destined to succeed. And succeed it did: the show became an instant favourite when it debuted in 1950, playing every Saturday night through the spring of 1954. It continued to air every 3 or 4 weeks after that until it ended its run in the summer of 1954.
The cast went on to lengthy careers in television and films, as did the writing staff, which featured such influential talents as Larry Gelbart (later the head writer on M*A*S*H), future playwright Neil Simon, and filmmakers-to-be Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
Although it is not frequently seen on television, Your Show of Shows has also continued to live on in other forms, thanks to producer Max Leibman. He packaged ten of the show’s most memorable comedy skits into the classic 1973 compilation film Ten From Your Show of Shows and also edited the show’s highlights into a series of 90-minute specials in 1976.
These pop up on television from time to time, and when they do, they provide a poignant reminder of just how much influence this classic show had on future sketch-comedy programmes like Saturday Night Live. The skits also remain fresh and memorably funny, proving that Your Show of Shows was a programme that truly lived up to its name.
Your Show Of Shows was sponsored and produced by Admiral Refrigerators.